Texas Legends #10: Lyndon Baines Johnson

Lyndon B. Johnson | The White House

The last post I did on Texas Legends was in August, and the reason for this is that I am doing them in chronological order and the next guy was the most famous of them, Lyndon Baines Johnson (1908-1973). I had great difficulty getting around to this because so many biographies have been written on him and have gone into greater depth on him than I could possibly hope to. Robert Caro alone has devoted so much of his long life to writing the ultimate biographical series on him. I sincerely hope he lives to complete his final volume of The Years of Lyndon Johnson. This being said, I asked myself, what can I contribute to this subject? A profile like the others will not do as so much is covered about him in other works. Thus, I have decided to focus largely on his voting record on ideologically salient issues, as this is my specialty. I will be putting most of my focus here into his time as a representative and senator.

When Johnson was first elected to Congress in 1937, he was succeeding another significant figure in Texas politics, James P. Buchanan, who had died in office. He was an enthusiastic New Dealer in his Congressional years and backed key legislation such as the Fair Labor Standards Act and FDR’s reorganization plan that his critics called the “Dictator Bill”. Johnson’s first MC-Index score was a 12%. This placed him among the liberals in the Texas delegation, including Sam Rayburn and Maury Maverick. Already by the time of his entry to Congress Texans were starting to get more hesitant about the New Deal…the average House delegation score for Texas that session was 29% and it would grow in the years to come. Johnson was a master at courting whoever he identified as the most powerful person where he was. In the House, this was Sam Rayburn and in the Senate this was Richard Russell of Georgia. He acted as a bit of a surrogate son to these childless bachelors. Johnson’s record was throughout the 1940s a 100% interventionist on foreign policy and opposed civil rights legislation. Indeed, most Texans were as a matter of course voting against civil rights. The only exceptions in this time were Maury Maverick (thus suiting his name), Albert Thomas, and R. Ewing Thomason. Johnson further solidified his liberal record after his reelection in 1938, scoring a mere 3% on the MC-Index. The only issue he sided with conservatives on by this measure was his vote against Vito Marcantonio’s (ALP-N.Y.) proposal to recommit an anti-subversive bill. No Texan sided with Marcantonio on this one. He was also one of only three Texas representatives to vote against the Hobbs Bill for illegal alien detention, which was dubbed the “concentration camp bill” by its critics. In the 77th Congress, Johnson’s score jumps to a 40%, but he cast only five votes among those counted in this session. This was because he was busy trying to win a Senate election in 1941 (which he lost by a little more than 1000 votes, possibly due to voter fraud) and for much of 1942 he was serving in the navy. His votes for the conservative position were regarding the Vinson Anti-Strike Bill; Albert Thomas alone among Texans voted against this effort at limiting the power of unions. Texas Democrats had at one point been favorable to unions as a way of counterbalancing the power of Northern capitalists, but once unions started to threaten the low-wage system that characterized the old South most Southern politicians lined up against further union power. This served as a major exception to Johnson’s liberalism during the Roosevelt period. He remained an enthusiastic supporter of work relief, alphabet agencies, and public power. In the 78th Congress, Johnson scores a 21%, with his primary dissents from the liberal position involving again labor issues. He also voted to reauthorize the House Committee on Un-American Activities. However, Johnson backed strong price controls, opposed tax relief, and supported the retention of funding for New Deal programs. In the following Congress, Johnson scored a 17%. His primary differences with liberals were exclusively on issues regarding organized labor. Price controls, housing subsidies, and government ownership of means of production in power met with his approval. After the 1946 election, Johnson would face his first Republican Congress.

Johnson’s legislative behavior in the 80th Congress mirrored that in the previous Congress: his score was a 16% and again the issues he dissented with liberals on involved labor given his favorable votes on the Taft-Hartley Act. In 1948, Johnson again tried for the Senate after the man who bested him, Pappy O’Daniel, had become so unpopular that he chose not to run again. His foe was Coke Stevenson, a conservative Democrat who was more in step with Texans than O’Daniel and far more competent. However, Johnson had an ace up his sleeve: election fraud. He barely pulled off a victory in the Democratic primary, by 87 votes. 202 additional late votes had come in from Precinct 13 of Jim Wells County. All were votes for Johnson, all were in alphabetical order, and all had the same handwriting with the same ink. Retired election judge Luis Salas admitted in 1977 that he had certified ballots he knew were fraudulent for Johnson on the orders of political boss George Parr, stating “Johnson did not win the election – it was stolen for him and I know exactly how it was done” (The New York Times). The nickname of “Landslide Lyndon” was initially derisive given the nature of his victory.

The Senate: Johnson’s Prime

The position in which Lyndon B. Johnson functioned best was the Senate. He would after his presidency compare the House and the Senate to George H.W. Bush as “chicken shit” to “chicken salad” (Autry).  Johnson would in four years of being sworn in be elected leader of the minority Democrats. He did some things as senator that infuriated progressives, including his campaign against the renomination of Leland Olds for the Federal Power Commission, deriding him as an anti-capitalist zealot who opposed the oil industry. Olds had in his younger years held radical views and associated for a time with the Technical Alliance under Thorstein Veblen, an influencer of the Technocracy movement. He charged him with having communist sympathies and used writings of his out of context to falsely paint him as such (Caro, 10-12). Although conservatives would likely have voted against Olds without such a smear campaign given his New Dealish politics, he was defeated on a vote of 15-53 and never held a government position again. However, Johnson largely backed President Truman’s Fair Deal agenda. He also was always sure to defend the interests of Texas, and this most showed with his support of legislation to grant title over oil deposits to the states. This would benefit California, Louisiana, and Texas most.

In the 83rd Congress, Johnson would face his second Republican controlled Congress and even there he managed to exercise influence. I have covered his impressive defeat of the Bricker Amendment before, which he pulled off despite voting for the revised version of it. The 1954 election would return the Democrats to the majority in both the House and the Senate. Speaker Sam Rayburn and Majority Leader Johnson would frequently collaborate with President Eisenhower and he often relied on them. Indeed, Eisenhower had appreciated his takedown of the Bricker Amendment. Both of them shared an internationalist philosophy, and Johnson didn’t want something pesky like the Bricker Amendment interfering with his treaty making powers when he would be president.

Southern senators were skillful and coordinated in their support of maintaining Jim Crow and in support of other “Southern” causes, but this came at a cost: no Democrat from a Southern state had been president since Andrew Johnson of Tennessee, and he had been elected vice president on the Union Party ticket. LBJ knew that if he were to have a chance, he couldn’t be a typical Southerner. Other Southern senators understood this and thus he wasn’t even approached to sign the Southern Manifesto in 1956. In 1957, he engineered the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1957, the first time this had happened since 1875 and the first time he had ever backed such a measure. However, this came at a cost: Johnson emasculated the bill. Liberal critics often thought of him as too conservative given his close associations and friendships with Southern legislators, and this was for the Senate portion of his career not wholly unjustified: his MC-Index average score is the highest in this period of his career, with term one being a 33%, which although it doesn’t make him conservative it is more than high enough for liberals to have complaints. His conservative votes often were on defending regional interests, including his support for limiting union power and on oil. He also at times cast votes against liberal alternative proposals in the Senate, such as one regarding unemployment compensation in 1958. However, he was a reliable vote for proposals on agriculture, public housing, public power, food stamps, public works, and voted for Medicare in 1960. Johnson’s Senate record got more liberal in term two, with his MC-Index average being a 14%. He would further prove where his heart was as president.

In 1960, Johnson sought the nomination but he got the ultimate consolation prize: the vice presidency. This was the worst time in his career, as I covered in my post on presidents and vice presidents who didn’t get along. However, President Johnson (6%) proved considerably more liberal than Representative (18%) or Senator (24%) Johnson. His Great Society was the greatest expansion of the federal government’s functions since the New Deal. Indeed, it was the spiritual successor of the New Deal and covered some areas the New Deal (mostly) passed over, like civil rights. He went further on civil rights than could have been imagined only a decade before, not only with his backing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 but also his support for fair housing. Johnson even backed ending the “right to work” section of the Taft-Hartley Act, a reversal of his previous support in 1947. It was also one of the few parts of the Great Society that didn’t pass in the staunchly liberal 89th Congress. Much liberal appreciation that went into his work was, however, marred as we all know by the escalating American participation in the Vietnam War. Johnson’s lifetime MC-Index score was an 18% overall.

References

Autry, C. (2012, October 26). Top profanity in POTUS history. NBC12.

Retrieved from

https://www.nbc12.com/story/19919569/top-profanity-in-potus-history/

Caro, R.A. (2002). Master of the Senate: the years of Lyndon Johnson. New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

Ex-Official Says He Stole 1948 Election for Johnson. (1977, July 31). The New York Times.

Retrieved from

Johnson, L.B. (1949). Leland Olds: The Record vs. Propaganda. United States Government Printing Office.

Retrieved from

https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth249173/

Some Votes Referenced Specifically or By Issues:

House:

Rolls 125, 145, & 154, 1938.

Rolls 39 & 84, 1939.

Rolls 73 & 74, 1941.

Rolls 4, 6, 44, 52, 53, 54, & 68, 1943.  

Roll 106 (he paired against), 1944.

Rolls 121, 122, 141, 143, 146, 154, 190, & 202, 1946.

Rolls 26, 27, & 51, 1947.

Senate:

Roll 220, 1949.

Roll 19, 1953.

Roll 109, 1954.

Rolls 34, 59, 131, 132, 175, 1957.

Rolls 7, 198, 208, 1959.

One thought on “Texas Legends #10: Lyndon Baines Johnson

  1. Now, from what I recall reading in Caro’s book The Path to Power, the 1941 Senate special election was marked by election fraud both Johnson and O’Daniel were involved with. Both apparently had certain counties led by corrupt officials who cheated in their favor. Johnson was overconfident that he could easily beat O’Daniel, and told his fellow corrupt minions running the election in certain counties to report the vote at any time they pleased. This proved to contribute to his final defeat, as typically a candidate in the era and region looking to cheat themselves to the finish line would tell corrupt election officials rigging the race in their favor to report the final vote at the last minute when their opponent’s total vote tally is becoming very clear.

    As for the infamous 1948 Senate Democrat primary where Johnson cheated his way to the finish line, Caro’s book Means of Ascent goes into some interesting details. For one, Johnson made no mention of his previous pro-New Deal record in the campaign. And another point to mention is that he campaigned on his anti-civil rights record, at one point in a speech telling a crowd that he voted against anti-poll tax and anti-lynching legislation. Now, interestingly, apparently the newspapers didn’t cover that issue, and because Johnson and Stevenson had similarly negative records on race (Stevenson as governor once hardly gave any response to a lynching in the state), that evidently wasn’t a major factor in the race. Johnson also promoted a “big lie” that Stevenson supposedly was against the Taft-Hartley Act.

    An interesting side note to add is that Caro’s portrayal of Coke Stevenson almost seems to intend for the reader to sympathize with the latter over Johnson. Caro seems to cast Stevenson overall as having honesty and integrity as opposed to the crooked, bullying, arrogant and corrupt Johnson.

    And Johnson’s role in the Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1957 is very interesting to read about. From the key chapters I read through in Master of the Senate pertaining to that, he knew that preventing a Southern filibuster meant ridding Title III (which authorized the U.S. attorney general to seek preventative relief in civil rights cases under the 14th Amendment) and weakening Title IV. The former focused on desegregation, while the latter on voting rights. Many conservative-minded Republicans, although supportive of civil rights, disliked Title III’s expansion of federal government powers, and ultimately voted for the removal, especially after President Eisenhower emphasized more on Title IV over Title III in a speech. That measure, according to Caro, was known as the Anderson-Aiken amendment. And then came watering down Title IV, which meant instituting a jury trial amendment that would effectively ensure no white southerner accused of infringing on black voting rights could get punished by a jury of fellow racist southerners. Johnson managed to unite Southern and Western Democrats in voting for the O’Mahoney jury trial amendment (yeah, it was introduced by Joseph O’Mahoney of Wyoming rather than a Southerner), which along with some Republican votes got passed and effectively gutted the original version of the Civil Rights Act of 1957 to a rather toothless bill. Caro says that the Western Democrats supported the jury trial amendment because it resonated with their liberal, populist roots which traditionally resented injunctions by judges against strikers.

    Now, during the 1957 debate, Johnson told Richard Russell, Jr. that blacks were getting “uppity,” further saying: “Now we’ve got to do something about this, we’ve got to give them a little something, just enough to quiet them down, not enough to make a difference.” This sounds like a basis for his institution of the Great Society, which from my understanding simply kept poor blacks poor rather than promoting economic mobility. There’s also the allegation that Johnson once said he’ll “have them n*****s voting Democrat for 200 years,” though there isn’t sufficient substantiation/proof for that. Interestingly enough, Caro seems to imply that Johnson was merely crude in general as opposed to racist despite his racially charged remarks in both public and private.

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